Tim teaches musical instruments in schools and colleges. He also plays the trumpet in several bands and arranges and publishes music.
The French Horn in F
The French horn makes a hugely expressive sound and can play over a wide range. Its huge tone has the ability to blend yet also sound heroic. The French horn is a transposing instrument that is most commonly in the key of F. This means the note sounds a fifth lower than the note written. For example, if the horn plays a C, it will sound the note F in concert pitch.
French horns are most commonly in the keys of F and Bb, but some horns in F have an Eb crook that lowers the horn down by a tone. The modern French horn is referred to as the double horn as it is two horns in one. The double horn has a 4th valve operated with the thumb, which allows the player to switch between the F and Bb slides.
Below, you'll find a useful chart that shows the most commonly used fingerings for French horns. This chart shows the fingerings for a double horn, so it includes fingerings for horn in F and horn in Bb. Please note that a double horn's Bb slide is also transposed into F despite it being in Bb. This is also true of the Bb single horn as it is thought of being part of the double horn in F. I have also included the fingerings for the lower register in bass clef and its transition into the treble clef.
The video below will show you the most common fingerings for horn in F and Bb. The video will play the pitches of each note as transposed for horn in F. Please note that the horn in Bb is also transposed into to the key of F.
How Many Notes Can the French Horn Play?
In the hands of an experienced professional, the French horn can play over a huge range of 4 and half octaves. The lowest note is the double pedal C, below the bass clef, and the highest note is the F, an octave above the stave of the treble clef.
Most commonly, the horn is played in the range between pedal C (in the bass clef) and the top C (above the stave of the treble clef). The horn slide in Bb has a similar range but can only play down to a double pedal F, although the higher notes will be easier to pitch.
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The Open Notes
Like all brass instruments, the French horn can play several "open notes" that are played without any fingerings. The open notes are from the harmonic Series and are (listed from lowest to highest) C, C, G, C, E, G, Bb, C, D, E, F, G, Ab, Bb, B, and C. The French horn player can move between these open notes by tightening their lips to play higher and loosening their lips to play lower. The notes get closer together as the pitch raises.
The natural horns of the 17th and 18th centuries were mostly restricted to using the open notes as they didn't have any valves. The player could change the crook, an additional length of pipe, to suit the key of music they were playing. For example, an Eb crook would lower the horn in F by a tone making all of the open notes lower. To increase the number of notes the natural horn could produce, the player would hand the stop notes to help change the pitch.
Below is a diagram showing the open notes for a double horn in F (no valves) and horn in Bb (just the thumb valve).
How Do the Valves Work on a French Horn?
French horns have rotary valves, unlike most other brass instruments that have piston valves. The rotary valve turns to redirect the air to the slides as opposed to the piston, which moves up and down. Most modern French horns in F (the Double Horn) have 4 valves. The 4th, valve which is operated by the thumb, channels the air into the Bb slides, which makes the horn shorter and a 4th higher.
To make the French horn fully chromatic, you will need to use the valves to lower the pitch of the open notes. The valves increase the length of the horn by directing the air through additional tubing to lower the pitch.
What the Three Valves on a French Horn Do
- Valve 1 lowers the pitch by 2 semitones (a tone)
- Valve 2 lowers the pitch by a semitone
- Valve 3 lowers the pitch by 3 semitones (a minor 3rd)
By using different combinations of valves, you can play all of the notes. Using low C in the treble clef as an example, I've written the valve combinations in descending chromaticism below.
Valve Combinations in Descending Chromaticism
- No valves: Open note: C
- 2nd valve: Down a semi tone: B
- 1st valve: Down two semitones: Bb
- 1st and 2nd valves: Down three semitones: A
- 2nd and 3rd valves: Down four semitones: Ab
- 1st and 3rd valves: Down five semitones: G
- 1st, 2nd, and 3rd valves: Down six semitones: F#
You can then do the same pattern on each open note, filling the gaps between them.